Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Qualitative Research: Rigour and qualitative research

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 08 July 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:109
  1. Nicholas Mays, director of health services researcha,
  2. Catherine Pope, lecturer in social and behavioural medicineb
  1. aKing's Fund Institute, London W2 4HT
  2. bDepartment of Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 6TP
  1. Correspondence to: Mr Mays.

    Various strategies are available within qualitative research to protect against bias and enhance the reliability of findings. This paper gives examples of the principal approaches and summarises them into a methodological checklist to help readers of reports of qualitative projects to assess the quality of the research.

    Criticisms of qualitative research

    In the health field--with its strong tradition of biomedical research using conventional, quantitative, and often experimental methods--qualitative research is often criticised for lacking scientific rigour. To label an approach “unscientific” is peculiarly damning in an era when scientific knowledge is generally regarded as the highest form of knowing. The most commonly heard criticisms are, firstly, that qualitative research is merely an assembly of anecdote and personal impressions, strongly subject to researcher bias; secondly, it is argued that qualiative research lacks reproducibility--the research is so personal to the researcher that there is no guarantee that a different researcher would not come to radically different conclusions; and, finally, qualitative research is criticised for lacking generalisability. It is said that qualitative methods tend to generate large amounts of detailed information about a small number of settings.

    Is qualitative research different?

    The pervasive assumption underlying all these criticisms is that quantitative and qualitative approaches are fundamentally different in their ability to ensure the validity and reliability of their findings. This distinction, however, is more one of degree than of type. The problem of the relation of a piece of research to some presumed underlying “truth” applies to the conduct of any form of social research. “One of the greatest methodological fallacies of the last half century in social research is the belief that science is a particular set of techniques; it is, rather, a state of mind, or attitude, and the organisational conditions which allow that attitude to be expressed.”1 In quantitative data analysis it is possible to generate statistical …

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